What Is Law?


Law is a set of rules that are created and enforced through social or governmental institutions to regulate behavior. Law shapes politics, economics, history and society in many ways. It governs the actions of individuals and groups, provides a mediator to resolve disputes, establishes rights, protects property and provides a framework for a society to function as an ordered community. Law is enacted and enforced in a variety of ways, by legislatures (with statutes), the executive branch (through decrees and regulations) or judges through precedents in common law jurisdictions. Private individuals can also create legally binding contracts and enforceable agreements. In addition to its other functions, law provides a way for citizens to be treated fairly by government and other public officials and to be held accountable to the same standards as those in society at large.

Generally speaking, laws consist of commands which state what a person must or must not do and prohibitions which prohibit certain activities. They are a type of moral code which dictates the right and wrong, the good and bad. Laws also provide a system of justice which determines guilt or innocence and sets punishment for criminal acts. Law is a complex subject. From a methodological viewpoint, it is unique among the sciences and disciplines because its statements have both descriptive and prescriptive character. This makes law different from empirical science (such as the law of gravity) or even social sciences such as economics.

Legal subjects are broad and varied and can be divided into three basic categories although many subjects intertwine and overlap. Civil law encompasses the legal systems found in most nation-states (as governed by their political power) and covers 60% of the world’s population. It is based on concepts, categories and rules derived from Roman law with influences from canon law and custom.

In contrast, common law countries follow the judicial model of England’s early era which is based on judge-made precedent. The other main category is religious law which has historically played a significant role in secular societies. It is still used to settle secular disputes in some communities.

Regardless of the type of law, there are four universal principles that all law must contain: it must be clear and publicly stated, stable and applied evenly, guarantee individual rights such as property and contract and provide accessible and timely justice delivered by competent representatives and neutrals. This is a difficult task because of the vast differences in cultural and economic circumstances, but it must be pursued with vigour. Those who practice law are known as lawyers. They achieve a distinct professional identity by following specific procedures and undergoing a rigorous legal education that culminates in an academic degree such as a Bachelor of Laws, a Master of Legal Studies or a Doctor of Laws. They are regulated by their governments or by independent professional bodies such as bar associations and law societies. In addition, some lawyers earn a title of respect to indicate their special qualifications such as Esquire or Barrister.